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Thomas Pynchon | Biography

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Thomas Pynchon is an American novelist best known for sprawling absurdist novels critiquing modern society. He was born Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr. on May 8, 1937, in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York. He graduated from high school at age 16 and went to Cornell University, where he studied engineering. His studies were interrupted by his two-year stint in the navy, after which he returned to Cornell and obtained a degree in English in 1959.

After graduating from Cornell, Pynchon spent a year in New York, living in the bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village and working on short stories and a novel. He then moved to Seattle, Washington, where he spent a few years working as a technical writer for the airplane manufacturer Boeing. In 1963 he quit Boeing and devoted himself to writing.

Literary Career

Pynchon's first short story, "A Small Rain," appeared in 1959 in the college literary magazine The Cornell Writer. His Greenwich Village and Boeing years saw the publication of several more short stories. In 1963, the same year he left Boeing, he published his first novel, the enigmatic V. One line of this complex novel concerns the search, variously described as a "scholarly quest" and a "simple-minded ... pursuit," for a hidden meaning—perhaps a land, or a woman—behind the initial V. The William Faulkner Foundation awarded V. its prize for best first novel.

V. was followed by another short story and several excerpts of a work in progress. Pynchon published the latter work in 1965 as the short novel The Crying of Lot 49. In this second novel, a woman wanders Southern California in an attempt to learn about a mysterious underground organization named the Tristero (also spelled Trystero in the novel). Neither she nor the reader can tell if she has discovered something real or if she is entangled in a paranoid fantasy.

In 1973 Pynchon published Gravity's Rainbow, a sprawling novel set at the end of World War II (1939–45). Gravity's Rainbow expands themes and styles of the earlier two novels. Like the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49, its protagonist teeters on a knife-edge between insight and paranoia, and he sometimes seems the pawn of vast, secretive organizations with malign motives. Against this backdrop Pynchon also brought into play his absurdist humor, interrupting the narrative with songs, dreams, and drug-induced visions.

Gravity's Rainbow was hailed as a success; it was one of two novels awarded the National Book Award for fiction in 1974. (It shared the honor with Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Crown of Feathers.) The judges of the Pulitzer Prize selected Gravity's Rainbow for the 1974 prize in fiction. However, the judges were overruled by the outraged Pulitzer Prize advisory committee, who called the novel "unreadable," "overwritten," and "obscene." In a stalemate, no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded that year.

Sixteen years passed between Gravity's Rainbow and Pynchon's next novel, Vineland (1990), set in marijuana-growing country in Northern California. Vineland's critical reception was less enthusiastic than for the earlier novels. It was followed by Mason & Dixon (1997), which mimics 18th-century styles as it tells the story of the two famous surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Against the Day (2006) follows anarchist and rebellious characters at the turn of the 20th century. With Inherent Vice (2009) Pynchon gives his version of a detective novel while returning to the Southern California settings of The Crying of Lot 49. In Bleeding Edge (2013) Pynchon explores the computer industry, just before the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Reclusiveness

Pynchon has determinedly avoided media appearances. Only a handful of confirmed photographs exist, and he declines to give interviews. Nonetheless, there is no evidence he is a hermit or a misanthrope (someone who despises people). He seems only to avoid publicity, not people in general. He dedicated Gravity's Rainbow to his close friend Richard Fariña, a fellow writer he first met while they both studied at Cornell. Later, he was the best man at Fariña's wedding to the sister of folk singer Joan Baez. Pynchon's media avoidance is often playful rather than tormented. In 1974 he sent comedian Irwin Corey in his place to accept the National Book Award. He has "appeared" on several episodes of the animated series The Simpsons, represented by a character wearing a bag over his head. Away from publicity Pynchon is a family man. In the 1990s he married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson, and they have a son.

Legacy

Pynchon's best-known novels combine an encyclopedic range of historical and technical knowledge with comic antics and conspiracy plots. V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow all use paranoia as a lens through which to criticize contemporary society. Authors influenced by Pynchon's novels include postmodernists David Foster Wallace, Don De Lillo, and Richard Powers. Gravity's Rainbow, with its emphasis on cybernetics (how control systems, whether neurological or mechanical, affect communications), has been cited as an influence on cyberpunk and on science fiction novelists William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling. Critic Michael Wood has been a dissenting voice, labeling Pynchon the inventor of "hysterical realism," a style Wood believes is too full of puns, absurdities, and lengthy prose. However, Pynchon continues to be admired for his fiction.
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